KUALA LUMPUR: First there was the United States; then came China. Now, Saudi Arabia is trying to peddle its influence in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.
The entry of Saudi Arabia, especially the pushing of its Islamic agenda, is likely to affect Asean and the relationships within the grouping, according to an analysis in The Diplomat.
Written by Naishad Kai-ren, the article says Saudi Arabia’s influence peddling will deepen the cultural divide and raise difficult questions about Asean unity and security.
It says while Saudi funds will be good for the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia, it will also provide the energy for the growing Islamic conservatism in the region to continue.
When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia embarked on a month-long trip to Asia in February this year, he visited China, Japan, and three Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia – Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
“It might have been easier to corral investments from other Southeast Asian markets like Thailand or Singapore; that the King chose to skip those destinations illuminates the fact that this trip was organised with more than just economic motivations in mind.”
Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as the leader of the Islamic world, but since the ascendance of a theocratic Iranian government in 1979, that position has consistently been challenged.
With the Obama administration’s conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members – China, France,Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany), the threat of a resurgent Iran has been looming large in the Saudi psyche, the article says.
“The King’s February trip was undoubtedly a means of cementing the desert kingdom’s leadership status before Iran is fully reintegrated into the world order. While Southeast Asian Muslims are predominantly Sunni and thus unlikely to come under Iranian influence, making a big show of its leadership and influence across the world will go some way in securing Saudi Arabia’s stature.
“And what better way of cementing one’s leadership of the Islamic world than by backing leaders who have made a concerted effort to court Muslim voters and further Islam as a way of life in their countries?”
The article notes that while Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah introduced shariah law in Brunei in 2014, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has been “aggressively courting the Islamic vote since the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal broke”.
When the bill to enhance the punishments under shariah law in Kelantan was introduced, Najib supported it “in a clear attempt to woo hardline Muslim voters”.
In December 2016, Najib led a boisterous rally in Kuala Lumpur, expressing solidarity with the persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.
The article says Saudi money offers Malaysia and Indonesia another alternative to dependency on China for investment and funding.
“In the midst of the 1MDB scandal, Malaysia received a generous injection of Saudi money during the King’s visit, with seven memoranda of understanding worth more than US$2 billion concluded in a range of sectors.”
This may open the floodgates of investment from other Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.
“In engaging with Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia is primarily acting in its own self-interest, to preserve its leadership of the Islamic world and grow trade ties. However, this commitment has plenty of ramifications for the region. For Indonesia and Malaysia, it offers them the ability to regain some autonomy in their security and geopolitical decisions.”
Saying both countries have been quiet on the South China Sea conflict, the article in The Diplomat suggests this is partly because of their lopsided economic dependence on China.
In Malaysia’ case, it says, China has become its top trading partner and source of foreign direct investment.
“Furthermore, China has demonstrated extreme generosity in helping to bail out the heavily-in-debt 1MDB, spending over US$4 billion to acquire an energy company and property project in 1MDB’s portfolio. In the absence of other willing financiers, Najib seems to have decided that silence on territorial issues is a small price to pay for political survival.”
The article predicts that, in the long run, if a deeper shared sense of Islamic identity is cultivated by Malaysia and Indonesia, and if they are able to transcend historical grievances, the relationship between the two nations could fundamentally change to one grounded in religion, offering fraternity and support in regional forums and the international arena.
“What this augurs for Asean, however, is quite a different question. While it may give Asean a realistic opportunity to address difficult issues like the South China Sea as a bloc, it also seems to signal the entrance of yet another power broker in the region.
“Saudi Arabia’s cultural and religious influence will continue to shape the trajectories of Southeast Asian nations, both those with Muslim majorities and otherwise.”
Saying the reach of existing Saudi cultural influence in both countries should not be underestimated, the article notes that a 2016 New York Times report concluded that Saudi teachings have “shifted the religious culture in a markedly conservative direction” in Southeast Asia.
The article cites the recent case of a launderette in Johor, Malaysia, declaring that it would only serve Muslim customers, as proof of the increasing conservative Islamisation.
It says Najib’s diatribe against Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was one window into how Asean leaders have had to respond to this cultural development.
“If religiously-driven voters are to serve as a key part of Najib’s base, he will likely continue to position himself as a defender of Muslims across the region, awakening a heretofore dormant force in Southeast Asian relations that will outlive his tenure.
“This will probably cause significant tensions with countries where sizable Muslim minorities are present, including Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. These countries are already on edge after a spate of recent attacks and foiled terrorist plans, and they will certainly advocate for the Muslim-majority countries to embrace a more moderate brand of Islam.”
The article says Najib’s diatribe was bizarre given Asean’s steadfast adherence to the principle of non-interference in other member states’ affairs. Asean’s founders, it notes, were explicit in their insistence that each state should be given the latitude to govern as they saw fit, stemming from a desire to send a message to the then-superpowers, the Soviet Union and the US, that sovereignty was sacrosanct.
Najib’s action, the article in The Diplomat says, sets a dangerous precedent.